Having problems pronouncing a particular Spanish sound?
No matter how hard you try, it just keeps coming out wrong.
I know the feeling.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t say the letter r at all. It came out like a w (the word “brown” sounded like “bwawn”). It made me miserable.
I was given speech lessons and my soft r went away. I thought my problems were over.
Then I moved to Spain.
Disaster! I couldn’t pronounce the doble-erre.
Think ahorrar (to save), perro (dog), borrar (to delete), tierra (earth or land) or arroz (rice).
Doble-erre comes up a lot. It’s a vital sound.
How did I deal with it?
I discovered Spanish tongue twisters, or trabalenguas.
Why Spanish Tongue Twisters Rule
Tongue-twisters are a phenomenal way to improve your pronunciation in any language. In Spanish, though, they totally rule.
You know that “machine gun” Spanish? When someone speaks and you can’t believe they can say so many words so quickly?
You can learn how to do that by practicing tongue twisters effectively. Spanish is a rhythmic, energetic language. You need to put in some energy to speak it well.
Want to learn to speak Spanish quickly and clearly?
Start practicing tongue twisters like a Champion.
The Champion’s Guide to Learning Spanish Tongue Twisters
Would you expect to learn the perfect basketball shot without putting in deliberate, repetitive practice?
No. So why do we treat pronunciation like that?
We seem to think it’ll just come, magically, over time. Sure, it might, but it’s loads more effective if we put in some good practice.
I’ll repeat that. Good practice.
There are many ways to practice tongue twisters, but many of them are not effective.
Tongue twisters are an exercise. Like any exercise, they require a strategic practice routine.
Pair this routine with other pronunciation practice for to get the most bang for your buck. For instance, you can try shadowing the videos on FluentU for additional practice. FluentU uses real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—so you know the Spanish used will be authentic!
Stage 1: Champion Tongue Twister Warm Ups
A good warm up is the key to good exercise. If you don’t warm up your voice, you’ll be wasting your time.
But don’t worry, warming up your voice for tongue twisters is easy.
Find yourself a space where you’re comfortable “talking to yourself” and let’s get started.
Warm up #1: Get up and move!
How many times have you sat, hunched over at your computer while you practice Spanish?
Tongue twisters, just like any other exercise, are harder to do sitting down.
Because great pronunciation only comes when you have enough flow of air from your lungs. When you’re hunched up or sitting down your lungs are squashed. This makes the exercise unnecessarily hard.
The remedy for this is easy:
1. Stand up right now and shake your body. You’ve probably got some weird tensions from sitting at the computer. There’s no need to go crazy, just shake yourself out a bit and stretch.
2. Have you even spoken yet today? Get your lungs activated by humming a tune (try Happy Birthday, your favourite song or just some random notes).
3. Take a couple of deep breaths.
Simple! It’s amazing how rarely we actually prepare ourselves to start speaking practice.
Warm up #2: Open your mouth!
Your Spanish pronunciation will get 400% better if you open your mouth wide and speak clearly. This is extra-true for tongue twisters.
Sounds obvious? I hope so.
Still, I’ve seen people trying to recite tongue twisters with their mouth opening so narrow that you couldn’t even slide an Oreo cookie in there. Then they wonder why it’s so difficult.
This exercise will help you open up your mouth.
1. Scrunch up your face into a frown and pucker your lips.
2. Say “oooo” in a low voice
3. Open your mouth and eyes as wide as possible, so you’re grinning like an idiot.
4. Say “eeee” in a high voice.
5. Repeat a few times. It should sound like a fire engine (depending on how they sound in your country) “ooo-eee-ooo-eee”
When you’re practicing the tongue twisters, aim for your face to be as wide as possible.
Native Spanish speakers rarely mumble, and neither should you.
Warm up #3: Activate your tongue
You need an active tongue to be a tongue-twisting Champion. These three quick exercises will get it moving.
1. Say “Biddle-uh, diddle-uh, biddle-uh, diddle-uh.” Repeat this until you can do it smoothly.
2. Stick out your tongue as far as possible in a point and write your name in the air.
3. Make your tongue into a point and touch the tip behind your two front teeth. Say “lalalalalala” as fast as you can, using a high note.
Awesome! You’re officially warmed up and ready to get twisting.
Stage 2: Champion Tongue Twister Exercises
Where to find 1000+ tongue twisters
Bored of finding the same Spanish tongue twisters everywhere? Are you sick of saying tres tristes tigres comían trigo (three sad tigers ate wheat)?
We’ve provided a great list of sound-specific tongue twisters further down this post. But, if you get the tongue-twisting bug, you can find hundreds more tongue twisters at these three great directories, as well as in our previous post.
Picking the right tongue twisters for you
There’s little challenge in practicing tongue twisters that are very easy for you to say. By all means practice the easy ones every so often, but don’t avoid the ones you find hard.
You’ll get the most out of the exercise if you focus on sounds you find difficult.
Here’s how to pick the best tongue twisters for you.
1. Read through the list below and say each trabalenguas three times in your normal speaking voice.
2. Note the ones which are harder. Are you getting stuck on a particular sound?
3. Choose two that you find quite difficult. These will be your “work out exercises” for today.
4. Start practicing each one as described below.
The Top 10 Tongue Twisters You’ve Gotta Try
Here are our top ten tongue twisters. Each entry has the primary sound it practices (along with the phonetic representation, which you don’t need to know unless you’re interested), some example words, el trabalenguas (the tongue twister) and an English translation.
Sound: soft g – [x]
Example word: tejido (tissue)
De generación en generación las generaciones se degeneran con mayor degeneración.
(From generation to generation the generations degenerate with more degeneracy.)
Sound: ñ – [ɲ]
Example word: caña (cane, sugarcane or a small beer)
Ñoño Yáñez come ñame en las mañanas con el niño.
(Dimwit Yáñez eats yam in the mornings with the boy.)
Sound: p [p]
Example word: papel (paper)
Papá pon pan para Pepín, para Pepín pon pan papá.
(Dad serves bread for Pepin, for Pepin Dad serves bread.)
Sound: trilled rr [r]
Example word: barra (bar)
Erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril. Rápido corren los carros, sobre los rieles del ferrocarril.
(R with R cigar, R with R barrel. Quickly run the carriages on the rails of the railway.)
Sound: difference between r and rr [ɾ, r]
Example word: pero (but), perro (dog)
Si don Curro ahorra ahora, ahora ahorra don Curro.
(If Mr. Curro saves now, now saves Mr. Curro.)
Sound: s [s]
Example word: soso (bland)
Si la sierva que te sirve, no te sirve como sierva, de qué sirve que te sirvas de una sierva que no sirve.
(If the servant that serves you, serves you not as a servant, of what use is the service of a servant that doesn’t serve.)
Sound: s and th [s, θ]
Example word: Sicilia (Sicily), as pronounced in castellano
La sucesión sucesiva de sucesos sucede sucesivamente con la sucesión del tiempo.
(The successive series of events follows successively with the succession of time.)
Example word: titubeante (hesitant)
¡Qué triste estás, Tristán, tras tan tétrica trama teatral!
(How sad you are, Tristán, after such a gloomy theatrical plot!)
Sound: ue [we]
Example word: puerta (door)
Yo vi en un huerto un cuervo cruento comerse el cuero del cuerpo del puerco muerto.
(I saw, in a vegetable patch, a blood-covered crow eating the hide of the body of the dead swine.) Yuk! Memorable though!
Sound: ch [tʃ]
Example word: muchacho (boy, informal)
Chiquito chanchito cochinito, echado en la charca está, ¡ah! qué chiquito chanchito cochinito que cochinito está.
(Teeny, darling, baby, thrown in the pool. Ah! How teeny, darling, baby how darling you are.) *Lots of Latin American slang here.
How to Practice Tongue Twisters Effectively
So, you’ve picked out two tongue twisters?
In the past you might have just read them out a few times and moved on, right?
1. Stand up and make sure you’re warmed up a bit (see the previous section).
2. Repeat the tongue twister at your normal speed at least twice. Notice where you slip up.
3. Remember to open your mouth as wide as possible.
4. Slow it down a lot, like a slowed down record. Repeat it twice more, really slowly.
5. Exaggerate the pronunciation of the most difficult words.
6. Speed it up a bit. Repeat it twice more. Focus on getting a good rhythm going.
7. If you’re still having problems, slow it down again.
8. Try changing the rhythm. Put the stresses on different words. What works well? What rhythm makes it easier?
By now you’ve probably gone through it around ten times, and you’re starting to get good at it. It’s taken you, what, three minutes?
When you’re feeling like you’ve got it, do the same with your second tongue twister.
Bonus tip: Try adding a tune to the tongue twister. You don’t have to be a good singer and it doesn’t have to be complex (random notes are fine). By focusing on the tune, and the rhythm, you can master the tongue twister double-quick.
Practicing Throughout the Day
Here’s the most important bit. Add the exercise into your daily language practice. When you’re out and about today (walking, jogging, cycling or in your car) repeat your two tongue twisters over and over to yourself.
Have fun with them.
Play around with the rhythm and try adding a tune to the words.
Tomorrow, try two more tongue twisters or stick with these ones if you’re still tripping up sometimes.
Applying This Method to Other Phrases
You can apply the practice I’ve outlined here to more than just tongue twisters.
Any phrase you have problems with will benefit from a bit of deliberate practice. For me the phrase Universidad Politécnica (Technical University) gave me years of trouble until I applied this practice method to it… and that was where I was employed!
Start coming up with difficult sentences and practice saying them until you’re an expert.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.